The biggest deal in sports history to date is set to become reality soon. Sheikh Jassim bin Hamad Al Thani from Qatar wants to buy the football club Manchester United and has submitted an official offer. It is not known how much money the Gulf consortium is offering. It is said that information will be provided in due course. But the purchase price would probably pulverize the previous record for such deals.
The sheikh comes from the richest family in Qatar. The Al Thanis have been the country’s most powerful tribe for around 250 years, ruling Qatar as absolute monarchs since independence from Britain in 1971. Jassim is the son of a former Prime Minister of Qatar and the brother of the current ruler, the Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani. Jassim, 44, is the chairman of several companies and controls one of the country’s largest banks. He lets his PR team describe him as a United fan since childhood and wants to start by paying off all of the club’s debts. His goal: to make United the best club in Europe and the world again, to modernize the stadium and to beef up the surrounding infrastructure at the same time. You can see what that looks like to the east of the city, where Manchester City’s owner Sheikh Mansour from Abu Dhabi has pounded out rows and rows of apartment blocks, making an entire neighborhood virtually unrecognizable.
The looming bidding war for the traditional club – not only the authoritarian Gulf state, but also investors from the US and Great Britain are showing interest in buying – is the culmination of a development that began several years ago. Football clubs from popular leagues – most notably the English Premier League – have become attractive to investors. In the past, patrons pumped money into clubs out of a passion for football or indulged in an expensive hobby out of vanity. Soccer has now become a global business. The most successful clubs are brands with global appeal. Only a fraction of the fans can be found on the domestic market or even in the stadium.
Last November, Manchester United’s US owner family, the Glazers, announced that they were looking for “strategic alternatives” 17 years after the takeover. This explicitly includes the possibility of a complete sale. They also included their mini-sales pitch in the announcement: Nothing less than the “passion and loyalty” of the “global community” of “1.1 billion fans and followers” guarantee significant growth opportunities.” The American Raine Group, which initiated the sale of Chelsea FC last year, was commissioned with the business. The price in the room is the equivalent of around five billion euros.
Qatar’s interests are also about expanding networks and gaining influence. The World Cup in Qatar showed where this journey has gone so far – a tournament in the European winter in a tiny country that has no football tradition but has a lot of money thanks to large gas deposits.
Qatar uses football to gain influence in foreign policy. On the one hand, the rulers rely on security guarantees from the US by providing bases. On the other hand, they build up so-called soft power. Or as the German “Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung” puts it: “Anyone who is seen and has friends all over the world cannot just be swallowed up by the big neighbor Saudi Arabia and disappear from the map.”
The ruling family has owned the French club Paris St. Germain (PSG) through the Qatari sovereign wealth fund since 2011. However, a complete takeover of the traditional English club would not be allowed under UEFA regulations because of its investment in PSG. The Qataris would circumvent the ban by getting Jassim on board. As with the World Cup in Qatar, the critics are concerned with the discrimination against women and homosexuals and the generally poor human rights situation in the emirate. The accusation is “sportswashing”, whereby Qatar’s reputation is to be cleaned by association with the globally marketed glittering world of the Premier League.
This includes the fact that the funds required for the takeover could presumably not be clearly separated from state funds. This, in turn, creates a conflict with UEFA’s stipulation that owners may not own more than one club in a competition such as the Champions League – and Paris Saint-Germain is known to be an asset of the state-owned investment vehicle Qatar Sports Investments. UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin, his general secretary Theodore Theodoridis and Premier League CEO Richard Masters received a letter from the human rights organization Fair Square, which said: “No consortium of Qatari investors capable of such a takeover would be able to convincingly demonstrate that it is independent of the Qatari state.” Controls over how funds are distributed and used by the ruling family are “minimal to non-existent” in Qatar.
The letter refers to the corruption investigations surrounding the European Parliament and the findings of investigations by the Premier League itself into breaches of its financial rules by the owners of Manchester City. “Any attempt by UEFA to change its rules to allow for multi-club ownership hands autocratic states characterized by oppression and a lack of rule of law the key to European club football, in Qatar’s specific case a state accused of corrupting Europe’s democratic institutions.”
The Saudis have already gained a foothold in the English football business. The sovereign wealth fund had bought Newcastle United from the north of England in 2021 for the equivalent of 350 million euros. At that time it was in danger of relegation. Now the club has qualification for the Champions League within reach.
The strategy also worked for Manchester City. The club is majority owned by the Abu Dhabi ruling family. At the time of the takeover, City found themselves in the middle of nowhere in the English Premier League. The championship was celebrated a few years later, and five more championship titles have followed so far. However, the club is currently threatened with trouble: the English Premier League is investigating numerous violations.
This is reflected in the initiation of the United deal these days: In European football, the brutal commercialization of football is not an exaggerated caricature, but simple reality. States like Qatar use the system to permanently buy a profitable vehicle in Europe for a permanent increase in their own reputation and showing its regional rivals the power they earned in the West.
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